Laid off in the depths of the recession and unable to find another full-time job, writer Tamara Rice pieced together a new kind of workday for herself: three to five “mini-shifts” lasting one-and-1/2 to three hours each.
For more than a year, Ms. Rice shuttled back and forth as many as 10 times a day between writing and editing assignments and personal and family activities. Starting at 8 a.m. in her Yucaipa, Calif., home office and ending as late as 10:30 p.m., she struggled to keep all her mini-shifts straight. Sometimes, she says, she crashed into a mental wall, wondering, “OK, what am I doing now?”
Ms. Rice embodies a little-noticed effect of the recession: the incredible shrinking work shift. Cast off by mainstream employers or unable to find the job flexibility they need in a corporate setting, millions of workers are taking multiple part-time or freelance jobs, jumping back and forth repeatedly between work, other pursuits and more work. These weird workaday schedules are creating new time-management and other challenges.
The trend is reflected in federal jobs data. People in the “involuntary part-time” job categoryâthose who would like to find a full-time job but can’tâsurged during the recession to a high of about 6.6% of the work force last fall from about 2.2% in 2000. And the average workweek for private-sector, rank-and-file workers last October hit the lowest level since the government began keeping records in the 1960s, at 33 hours.
Fueling the mini-shift trend is an explosion in Web sites for freelancers, which enable skilled workers in a wide range of fields to sell their services easily in part-time chunks. On Elance, a freelance Web site, 700,000 workers list their services, nearly triple the 2006 number of 235,000. On another such site, oDesk, where Ms. Rice works, workers have soared to 480,000. And on FixYa.com, experts offering product troubleshooting and repair advice have risen in the past year to 250,000 from 100,000.
Some people work mini-shifts by necessity. Mike Lockier, a Eugene, Ore., programmer and broadcast engineer, hasn’t been able to find work as a programmer, and he was laid off from his broadcast engineer job. To create full-time work, he pieces together construction and repair jobs for clients he gets from Craigslist.org or referrals. Then he moonlights on FixYa.com, answering users’ email and instant messages in shifts ranging from two hours to all night. He would rather have a full-time job, he says, but patching together mini-shifts pays the bills.
Others work this way by choice. Ann Pechaver’s workweeks add up to about 35 hours, but they are intricately constructed in blocks of three, four or five hours. The Burlington, Vt., mother of two, a part-time college professor and consultant, divides her workdays into seven chunks, including three or four blocs devoted to work. She starts at 5 a.m. with a two-hour shift for one of several public-relations clients. After getting her two children, 7 and 9, off to school, she works another two to five hours, teaching, working with clients or serving as an elementary-school science-teaching volunteer. She spends evenings with her family, then finishes the day by working as late as midnight.
While some, including Ms. Pechaver, say working mini-shifts fosters cognitive agility, all the mental gear-shifting invariably creates hurdles for the human mind. “The hardest thing I do is transitioning, taking off one hat and putting the other on,” Ms. Pechaver says. Standing before a class of college seniors, her brain sometimes stalls while in a state better suited to her kids’ schools. She has addressed her students as “boys and girls,” she says, rather than her customary “ladies and gentlemen.”
“The brain just can’t toggle back and forth” indefinitely, says Julie Morgenstern, a New York corporate productivity consultant and author. So much task-switching can result in a kind of cognitive stall-out she calls “mental gear-stripping.”
To ward off that kind of brain freeze, Ms. Morgenstern says mini-shifters need to be “hyper-organized,” keeping track of all their commitments on one central calendar and planning work shifts as far as three days ahead, so they will be ready mentally to shift gears. She advises setting aside time both to prepare to resume an undertaking and to wrap up details at the end, taking notes if necessary so it’s easier to pick up the thread later.
Melissa Caouette, a Farmington, Conn., single mother, sometimes feels overwhelmed as she jumps back and forth among part-time jobs and volunteer positions. She has developed some tactics for avoiding a mental stall-out. To save time, she splices grocery shopping between her mornings at school as PTA treasurer and her midday part-time job as a waitress. She stashes the grocery bags in the restaurant cooler and puts the car keys right next to them. That way, she says, she can’t absent-mindedly drive away without her groceries.
A major pitfall of mini-shifting is the lack of “clear edges” between work and personal time, which can gradually erode R&R until “your life gets out of balance in a very significant way,” Ms. Morgenstern says. “You don’t know what to do with yourself other than work.” As a remedy, mini-shifters should “fill gaps with well-planned-out activities that re-charge you.”
Laura Wellington, a Ridgewood, N.J., entrepreneur, divides her day among four offices from which she runs three businessesâa computer-consulting company, a financial-systems business and a maker of a line of “Wumblers” toys and educational media. Her day starts and ends in her home office, often encompassing five mini-shifts of work lasting one to three hours. Between shifts she cares for her five children or commutes among the three other offices.
“Every two months or so, I find myself beginning to forget things. Sometimes I even break down crying,” Ms. Wellington, a widow and single mother, acknowledges. At such times, she will “pull back and fully recharge,” taking her children to the coast for a weekend.
Another risk is reduced output. “Almost any time we switch between doing different tasks, we will be less efficient than if we focused on a single task,” says Russell Poldrack, professor of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Texas, Austin, and an authority on multitasking. Ms. Pechaver estimates she loses about a half-hour a day of productive time from shifting back and forth.
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To guard against inefficiency, Peggy Duncan, an Atlanta personal productivity consultant, advises setting quantitative objectives for your work and assessing your progress frequently.
In a year spent working mini-shifts, Ms. Rice, the California writer, says she hit many of these obstacles. And without many opportunities for deep thought about her work, she found herself lacking her usual long list of creative ideas for clients. “I was working in such short bursts I didn’t have time to process what I was doing,” she says.
This month, she is testing a return to a traditional workday. She has reduced her client load a bit and overhauled her schedule into one six-hour shift. For her, at least, this traditional approach seems so far to be working; she has become passionate about her work again.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at firstname.lastname@example.org